Changes to the exclusive remedy provision in Illinois give workers greater freedom when filing claims against employers for latent injuries. Exposure to toxic substances can cause latent injuries that may not appear for decades after exposure. Under previous rules, workers had to file injury claims within 25 years post-exposure, and they were restricted to recovering through workers’ compensation claims. If symptoms such as cancer or other disability appeared after this date, workers were unable to pursue claims. The recent changes to Illinois law mean that workers now have the right to pursue civil tort actions against their employers for latent injuries that manifest more than 25 years after exposure.
The Impact of SB 1596
Previously, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act and the Illinois Occupational Disease Act stipulated that employees had to file claims within 25 years. SB 1596 was introduced because many illnesses stemming from occupational exposures did not manifest until after the 25-year statute of repose on workers’ compensation and tort claims. As a result, workers were severely limited in their ability to recover compensation for their injuries even when they were clearly the result of toxic exposures in the workplace.
SB 1596 removes the time bar from the language of the law. Should an illness manifest beyond 25 years post-exposure, workers can now pursue compensation for those injuries and the damage they cause to their health and lifestyle, and they may do so by suing their employers directly.
While this legislation will provide enhanced protection and legal options for workers moving forward, the legislation does not contain language regarding retroactive filings. Illinois courts typically do not allow for retroactive applicability regarding similar laws.
What Workers Can Do
Workers who have experienced a toxic workplace exposure, such as to asbestos, should maintain detailed and accurate records as soon as they suspect exposure. They should document the date of the exposure, the immediate effects, and any information they have received from their employer or medical provider. Individuals should store this information in a secure location and update it as symptoms emerge or medical diagnosis is received. The more thorough the documentation, the easier it will be to establish a clear link between causation and illness down the road. Should it become necessary for an individual to file a workers’ compensation claim or pursue damages in civil court, this information can be used as supporting evidence that can confirm the employer’s liability.